Are We There Yet?

Feb. 5, 2008
If your exact destination is not clearly pinpointed out prior to the departure, then at least a general direction should be decided upon.

Are we there yet? I guess that is only a matter of perspective, and it entirely depends on your determination of where in your mind that "there" is for you. I mean, you must have a destination in mind, to have some sort of an idea about how far along you are in your journey, and what is still left to go; or you might even have arrived already or passed it long ago, without even realizing it. Otherwise, "wherever you are, you are already there", right?

At the very least, even if the exact destination is not clearly pinpointed out prior to the departure; if you don't want to aimlessly wonder around (maybe even in a circle) then at least a general direction should be decided upon. As they used to say more than a century ago "go west young man"; and then decide down the line, along your journey where that "there" is for you to unload the wagons, settle and call it home.

There might be plenty of reasons for taking the journey, as was the case in the old west, or even yet, for departing the old continent and coming to the colonies in the new world, a couple of centuries further back. But then the strong motivation and the intense desire to do better and have a better future were the main driving forces for taking the many risks associated with travel. I am convinced that strong will and determination; besides diehard perseverance in overcoming the obstacles and not giving up the dream, were the main characteristics that played the most important role in the success of our country during the past few centuries.

The first step then is having the desire and the will to travel. But then, to have a purposeful journey and enhance the odds of reaching the destination safe, sound and within a reasonable time frame, logic dictates taking some preparatory measures. Once we establish where it is that we are going, then we need to find out about the possible routes to the destination, and then just as importantly, the required tools and resources to get us there. Having a map is of tremendous value in showing the available routes, and also identifying the need for pacing the trip with midway stops along the route for the much longer destinations.

No, this article is not promoting the Travel Channel. The intent of this article and the purpose of using the travel analogies were to show that during the past half a century, we in the fire service, have indeed come a very long way in addressing the fire problem in our country. My friends, from the very bottom of my heart, and with an optimistic perspective, I want to clearly state that "the glass" certainly appears to be half full indeed. And we must take pride in our accomplishments in reducing our country's total annual fire fatalities and the annual total cost of fires respectively during the past half a century.

But then, with all sincerity, are we there yet? Using the travel analogies above, to be able to answer this rather simple question, we must first address the fundamental question of where we believe that "there" is for us? It is only after identifying our goals, objectives, and the desired outcomes, that we can have a better assessment of our journey through the decades, and our current whereabouts with respect to our desired final destination.

Believe you me, I am not pessimistically focusing on the half empty part of "the glass" when I asked that question. It is just; I believe that my professional obligation demands a more in-depth historical look at the status of "the glass", with the mere intent of filling it to the rim.

I believe that the difference between pessimists and optimists is not merely in their analyzing of the past or evaluating of the present; but more importantly, it is in their view of the future, and their own role in shaping that future.

I believe that pessimists' negativities in their perspectives stem from their lack of resolve to change the status quo. Optimists' on the other hand, play a more active role in shaping their future. Then call me an optimistic fool, since my intent for writing all these articles have all along been to eradicate the complacencies deposited by the passage of decades, positively change the status quo, and actively participate in building a better and safer future.

I believe that even though historically our exact final destination might not have been pinpointed out as clearly as it should have been, but at the very least, the general direction was clearly pointed out in the many national conferences going back several decades. Simply stated, that general direction reiterated in all those national fire conferences, was that fire prevention is the main solution to the fire problem in our country.

I believe that we are definitely moving in the right direction; but we must now better define and pinpoint our final destination. To do that though, we must briefly look at where we were and where we are now. After all, those historical perspectives help us better chart our course for the future.

The most important one of those national fire conferences was the 1947 President's Conference on Fire Prevention, where President Truman delivered the keynote presentation. Since then, we have had the 1973 America Burning, the 1987 America Burning Revisited, and finally the 2000 America Burning Recommissioned reports. Besides those, there have been many other annual organizational conferences and seminars that have also made tremendous contributions to better depict the fire problem in our country.

Despite the title, the 1947 conference was not specifically about fire prevention. The conference focused on a comprehensive assessment of the country's fire service, and an in-depth analysis of the fire problem America was facing at that time. The intent was to develop recommendations to reduce the country's total national fire loss, which at that time was around $560 million; and fire fatalities, which reached more than 10,000 in 1946.

Now, compare that to the national fire statistics in our era. The rate of the total national fire loss (compared to the nation's Gross National Product) back in 1946; was twice as much as the current rate of the total national fire cost; which in 2004 was between $231 billion to $278 billion (2.0-2.5% of our current Gross Domestic Product). And the rate of fire fatalities (fatalities per million populations) in 1946 was five times higher than our recent 2005 fire fatalities statistics of 3,675. This explains the reasons for the direct involvement from the highest level of the federal government to address the fire problem in our country.

Such significant statistical reductions clearly show that we haven't been sitting idle for the past six decades; and that we have come a long way, indeed, in addressing the fire problem in our country. Thanks in large to our national fire prevention efforts, and specially the development of the smoke alarms technology, and their installation in 96 percent of the American homes during the past couple of decades; there has been a great measure of success in reducing the national fire fatalities.

So then, are we "there" yet? Close, yet no cigar; based on the 2000 America Burning Recommissioned report that stated "America today has the highest fire losses in terms of both frequency and total losses of any modern technological society." Then, where is that "promised land" after all? And what else needs to be done to get us "there"?

That my friends, is exactly why we need to redefine and clearly establish our goals, objectives, and in a sense identify our final destination; our own "there". That would then enable us to clearly assess our whereabouts with respect to our destination and our goal, won't it? Where exactly is our "there"?

I believe that boils down to answering a simple question of "to be, or not to be"? With all sincerity, we need to answer this question, whether we believe that the current annual fire loss in our country is an acceptable loss, or not? After all, from the logical and statistical point of view, there is absolutely nothing wrong to believe that it is inevitable to have fire losses in our country of about 300 million people, and that the current 4000 fire fatalities plateau is an acceptable loss level.

If that is our final answer; then maintaining the status quo, and staying with the current course of progress, could indeed be considered as appropriate. Then that is exactly where our "there" is. We have already arrived then. We have done the best that we can, by quickly responding to fires and putting them out; and have cut the national fire fatalities by more than half, since the time of the famous 1973 America Burning report. Nothing wrong with that success at all, and we should all be proud of our accomplishments.

But then, if our answer to that question is, that the current fire losses in our country is indeed not acceptable; then staying with the current course without any corrective adjustments might not be prudent; and we need to analyze our past performance and take corrective measures to adjust our approaches.

I tend to personally believe that we are not "there" yet; and our current fire fatalities and costs are not only unacceptable, but also unbecoming for a nation of our stature.

Why do I believe that? Take a look at Presidents Truman's statement from the 1947 conference:

"The serious losses in life and property resulting annually from fires cause me deep concern. I am sure that such unnecessary waste can be reduced. The substantial progress made in the science of fire prevention and fire protection in this country during the past 40 years convinces me that the means are available for limiting this unnecessary destruction".

Remember that back in 1947, President Truman talked about our failure to use the means available from the early part of the 20th century to address the country's fire problem. Keep in mind that it was the World War I technology that he was talking about that he believed could decrease the "unnecessary destruction" of fire. Yet, amazingly enough now, in the early years of the 21st century despite having the feasible technologies available for decades; we still have persistently failed to fully utilize them to address the fire problem in our country.

What am I talking about? Take a look at the NFPA report titled "Fire Loss in the United States During 2005." It stated "with home fire deaths still accounting for 3,030 fire deaths or 82% of all civilian deaths, fire safety initiatives targeted at the home remain the key to any reductions in the overall fire death toll".

And the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) claims that "installing both smoke alarms and a fire sprinkler system reduces the risk of death in a fire home by 82% relative to having neither". Yet, while smoke alarms are now quite common in our households, and 96 percent of our homes have smoke detectors installed in them, residential fire sprinkler systems have been installed in only two percent of homes in our country.

Then that being said, can we further reduce our total annual fire loss statistics? My answer is yes; we can and definitely must. Are we "there" yet? No, not yet. We need to have more focus on our mission, and have more persistence in our approach, and we will get "there". Using the travel analogy again, we must first clearly define our "there", we must then get an updated recent road map that shows all the current routes, and we must pack the necessary tools and resources to get us "there".

Not having the tools and resources to support us along our journey, I believe is the main reason for us not arriving at the "there" that the previous national conferences had previously identified.

What were lacking? Absence of a structured organizational mechanism at the national level; responsible for coordination of the implementation efforts with the locals at that level. And also, absence of a sustained, systematic, funding mechanism at the national level; to assist the locals with their efforts to implement those recommendations.

Back in 1947, they recognized that the fire problem is a national problem, and they outlined the appropriate recommendations for the states and local governments to implement. That was clear from President Truman's challenge to the 1947 conference attendees where he stated: "it is the clear responsibility of every state and local official, and every citizen, to aggressively support this national war against the growing menace of fire."

So then, we had a "national war", with the command decisions made at the national level; and then the troops in the trenches at the local levels were tasked with fighting the battles. And I mind you, with not much logistics support and with no supply for the local troops. No supply line was established for the troops in the trenches to provide them with the much needed resources; and there was no accountability in the ranks either, both at the local and at the national level.

I am not a military strategist, but that my friends, is not the best way to win a "national war", is it? Don't believe me? Listen to a national military hero who won the last big one; "Unarmed heroes cannot win the battle against fire" (General Dwight Eisenhower - 1948)

The same exact perspective of considering fire a national problem, and yet believing that the solutions are merely local, also persisted in the America Burning conference in 1973. And that view is still the most dominant view even at this day and age. Some explain that the reason might be deeply rooted in our constitutional separation of federal and state/local authorities and responsibilities.

Then with that point of view, all of the recommendations of those great national fire conferences of the past, could in a sense be considered as "unfunded mandates" that were merely advisory in nature. Federal government could not directly require or force the states or the local governments to implement any of them.

That is why the 1947 conference did not identify either the sustained, systematic funding source, or the structured organizational mechanism to implement those comprehensive recommendations at the local levels. Without an organizational structure and mechanism, there was no accountability to insure implementation of those recommendations.

How can you win the war, without any established command and communication, and no structured mechanism for responsibility and accountability, and additionally not having any supplies for the troops in the trenches? With that said, my friends, we should even be more proud of our commitments and the superb accomplishments that we have made thus far.

But, I think even the perceived obstacle of dichotomy of national and local authority and responsibility, could and should be resolved. After all there are plenty of successful examples of other federal enforcement agencies, utilizing the power of the mighty dollar; and through their grant programs, convince the local authorities to implement the national policies and recommendations indirectly, or as they would phrase it, voluntarily. And that is how they bridged the gap and solved that dichotomy. So, if they can do it, why can't we?

Here is what I think. We have got to get together in a forum; put our minds together, and work on gathering all the tools and resources that we need to successfully complete our journey, and get to that "promised land", to our "there". And yes, while brainstorming on those tools and resources, might as well, work on clarifying and pinpointing our exact goals, our "there" in a sense; and update our maps to get us "there". While at that, knowing the shortcomings of the past with regards to the absence of a well-defined structured organizational mechanism, and the lack of systematic sustained funding source, then we should also think about ways to "arm" our "heroes", so that they can finally "win the battle against fire." Is it doable? Why not? Not only we can, but we must.

Here is the good news my friends. That is exactly what the US Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) is intending to do with their Vision 20/20 National Strategic Agenda for Fire Loss Prevention forum:

This conference is scheduled for March 31 and April 1, 2008, just prior to the Congressional Fire Service Institute (CFSI), 20th Annual National Fire & Emergency Services Dinner & Seminars, in Washington, D.C.

For the past two years, many national fire leaders and the representatives from all major national fire service organizations, have volunteered and actively participated on the board and the steering committee of the National Strategic Agenda for Fire Loss Prevention, to organize this national forum to analyze and address our country's fire problem.

Their intent is not to "reinvent the wheel"; but to make an assessment of what has been identified by all previous conferences; what has been accomplished thus far; what still has direct relevance; what modifications must be made; what approaches should be taken and how should we go about accomplishing those tasks; what tools and resources are needed to accomplish the tasks, etc.

Considering the commitment of all of the major national fire organizations involved in this effort, I believe that this forum will indeed be a great step forward. I believe that through active participation and dedication of all those involved, we will be able to better define where our "there" is; have a more updated and better road map of showing us the routes to our "there"; and provide us with more tools and resources for getting us to our 'promised land", our "there".

As I stated before, strong will and determination; besides diehard perseverance in overcoming the obstacles and not giving up the dream, are the main characteristics that will play the most important roles in our successful journey. And I have seen that in the level of commitment of the individuals and the national organizations involved with this effort. Our strong motivation and the intense desire to better protect our communities from the menace of fire, is our driving force and the key to our success. Are we there yet? Not yet, but we will. After all, I am an eternal optimist.

Register now: Vision 20/20: Developing a National Agenda for Fire Prevention

AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, MIFireE, a Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. To read Ozzie's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at [email protected].

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